West and Back Again


Part 2 of 5
<- PrevNext ->

This is a blog (in 5 parts) on my motorcycle trip west from upstate New York to southern Colorado -- and back -- in June-July 2007.


Thursday, June 28: Minnesota: End of the Midwest

This morning it was cool, birdy, and bug-free. Time to go for a run.

I jogged around the campsite until I found some showers, then headed out along a farm road, back, and then down along the river. Picking up the pace on the way back. I felt great. Over the past several days I'd achieved the perfect taper. If only I could find a track and get myself for a mile! If ever I was going to break under five minutes, this could be the time.

As I was getting ready to head for the showers after the run, another park ranger, closer to my age this time but still bespectacled and still earnest, came up to the site.

"According to the note I read, you're short a dollar," he began. Inwardly I groaned. "Do you want to explain to me what happened?"

I gave him a brief rundown of the events of the night before. Like campers weren't arriving late every night? Of course he suggested we settle up the remaining accounts then and there. I went and got my wallet, and we made change. Pound of flesh extracted, no more, no less, my earnest host went on his way. These Wisconsinites sure were sticklers for propriety.

* * *

Back on the road, I headed up along the east side of the Mississippi, intending to cross somewhat north where I could take a state road across the first part of Minnesota, avoiding major cities.

About 20 or 30 miles into the ride, I came to traffic stoppage. Police patrolled a long line of stopped cars. Ahead in the distance I could make out the lights of fire trucks and ambulances.

Soon a car came driving back from the scene of the action. Some impulse to share information with other humans stopped him next to me and an older, German-accented man with whom I'd been speaking. He reached over to roll down his passenger-side window.

"A motorcycle hit a deer," he said, "Took both riders out."

An ambulance had already sped past us, and now a helicopter was swooping in to land in a cleared space on the road barricaded between two horizontally-parked fire trucks.

"They'll clear the road as soon as the copter takes off," the man in the car added. Then he rolled his window back up and carried on past us. Evidently his need to tell his news had been abated, for a didn't stop again along the long line of perhaps 50 vehicles stretched out behind us.

Disconcerting news, and I said as much to the German. "Ja, you need to be careful," he said. I was glad he wasn't admonishing me for being a lunatic.

One rider very seriously injured (the chopper), and one in an unknown state (ambulance). Hopefully not dead. The way opened when the helicopter took off as promised, and as I rode by I saw them lifting the motorcycle onto the back of a tow truck. It didn't even look damaged at all. Just some scuffs on a couple of the luggage bags. The riders must have been thrown from the bike as it struck the deer.

I made a note to try to lay the bike down on approaching a large animal rather than take the chance of this happening. Chances are generally much better in a "low side" crash.

* * *

I carried on, somewhat sobered, and crossed the Mississippi a few miles up. Here in its upper reaches before joining with the Missouri it was not such an impressive width. None the less, from Wabasha, Minnesota on the other side, almost immediately the character of the land changed.

Where before had been gentle, rolling hills were now sharper forms. The road which had previously run along ridges and valleys now swooped and dove from face to face. Finally, a road where I could sink my teeth into riding the motorcycle.

Approach curve, let off on the throttle, decide whether to downshift and do it if need be, look to the far end of the arc and lean the bike over, roll on the throttle around the turn, savoring the G-forces as the bike digs into the road.

At speed you turn a motorcycle by leaning it, not by turning the handlebars. In fact, the bike will go the opposite way you turn the bars, because it leans in that direction. Strange as this sounds every motorcyclist learns it intuitively. You might hear your safety instructor say to push the handlebar on the side to turn into, but it is your body that learns it by feel -- action - reaction -- as you ride the bike.

And again, surely few riders know why this works. I'm not sure I do, but my theory is the radius of the wheel where it contacts the ground is smaller on the inside where you are leaning. It spins at the same rate as the outside and therefore covers less ground. The motorcycle cuts out a turn. It sounds kind of backwards, but that's the way a lot of things work. Ask a physicist to be sure.

* * *

The road eventually calmed down and straightened out. At first it was like being back in Wisconsin -- or some parts of upstate New York -- but as I continued westward it really straightened out. I'm not sure what Minnesota is classified as but I wasn't in the midwest anymore.

This was the start of the prairie.

Describing it, it won't sound that special. Corn fields stretching out unbroken over appreciable fractions of a mile. And where there weren't corn fields, grass. Tall grass, and rarely any trees. Flat, with just the gentlest of rolls. And it continues...

Towards evening I saw a sign "See the Sod House". Typical tourist attraction it sounds like, except there hadn't been any tourist attractions on this road. US 14 West. About as far of a cry from I-95 "South of the Border", "See Rock City" as you could get.

It was a pleasant evening, and I was as much in the mood for a stop as for a ride. I turned off the main road.

"See the Sod House, as lived in by Laura Ingalls." I hadn't a clue who Laura Ingalls was, but I'd read about sod houses in Michener's Centennial. Building materials were scarce on the tree-challenged plains, but sod was both strong and plentiful. I was curious to see what the resulting construction would look like.

The place I pulled into was basically a guy's farm. "Step in and see our wonderful back yard," a sign on a barn actually proclaimed. I inwardly groaned, but it was too late to leave, some kids had already espied me and were standing out on a porch. I got off the bike and went over, only to find it seemed like the whole family was there, save the father. The mother was peppering me with questions even before I could get my helmet off. I did my best to oblige her.

It transpired the place was also a B & B (I groaned again) and guests were expected soon, so I'd have to hustle through. I paid a small admission charge and stepped through the gateway.

Into another world.

The sod house stood off to the left, looking absolutely genuine in every respect. Beyond it, tall grass waved in the gentle evening breezes. The scent of the prairie drifted to my nostrils. Peace...

I walked inside the house. Despite its rough outer appearance it was nice inside -- plaster walls and a fine beamed ceiling. The roof was wood, which might have been an inauthentic feature -- I never got to ask the hosts about this. Two beds, a Franklin stove, and a wood-burning cooking stove. Some wooden tables and chairs. An unfinished plank floor. Quite cozy. And silent. The sod walls, two feet thick, blocked all sound from outside. And there was grass growing from the roof!

Outside a sign described the various grasses of the prairie, and noted that the pioneers of Ingalls' day had had to "stand on their horses" to see any distance...

And somehow the land I had been riding through all afternoon hit me -- magnitude and magnificence. It was a delayed reaction, maybe because I'd been busy riding, maybe because the brain needed time to process this sea change from the closer hills through which I had come. I don't know. As with a subconscious decision, I can only guess at the reason a shiver of excitement ran up my spine confronted then by that empty land, its waving grass stretching to hills and blue sky in the distance.

Potential. Room to run. Freedom for action. The land speaks of these things. Not in any explicit way, but to your muscles, to your tendency to act, or not act, your state of readiness, your sensation of possibility. You quiver with anticipation but know not what you anticipate. You are charged.

There was another side too: the romance of the frontier. Of course we have all heard the history, read the fictionalizations, watched the television adaptions. Wagon trains moving west. Grand vistas, sordidness of city life left behind. Clean, straightforward challenges. Promise for new life -- a blank slate, good land, little baggage. Or simply, opportunity.

I covered this same pathway -- physically -- now. Though they took months to cover on foot what I would do in a few days, though my own life remained back east and was not being given up -- still I was here, I was outside, I was seeing the land change and empty out as I moved westward. Something of the pioneer experience came through.

* * *

Back on the road, it was getting late; my stop had cost me any chance of making South Dakota as I'd planned, so I started looking for a place to stay. All through Minnesota I'd been noticing little signs pointing out "Camping" or "Public Campgrounds" at various points, and now I followed one of these signs onto a side road. It led me to a little grassy park area with picnic tables, bathrooms, and -- campsites.

The place was small and humble, but for the first time on this trip I had it all to myself.

* * *

270 miles.


Friday, June 29: Breakdown

Today it finally happened -- something went wrong with the bike. I packed up and started out fine, but then before I even got back to the main highway it dropped down to firing on two cylinders (out of four). I limped into a gas station at the corner, then decided to limp back to the campsite where it would be more pleasant (and shady) to investigate things.

Here I confirmed that the #2 and #3 cylinders weren't firing, but the coils were connected (a previous problem I'd had causing the same symptom). It had to be an ignition problem -- for only the ignition system links 2 and 3 -- and that left the ignition points. I discovered the gaps had closed down from spec and thought the timing might have gone off as well. My theory was the grease I'd last used to lubricate things had broken down in the heat, causing friction, wear, and loss of adjustment. None of this turned out to be correct.

Yes folks, it was "zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" time. Relax. Pay attention to the bike. Don't get frustrated when you bang your hand trying to turn the wrench. Don't swear when you drop the tiny nut into the gravel and have to spend minutes searching for it. If you really can't focus and work efficiently, leave it aside, come back after you've cooled off.

I didn't have that luxury. If I wanted to meet up with my friends in Colorado anyway.

I needed some tools I didn't have with me. I limped back out to the gas station on the corner and they told me about a repair shop just a couple of blocks down the street. I made it over there -- dirt parking lot in front, a warehouse-like building, a hand-painted sign: Dan's Repair. I went in. Dan was at his desk and seemed to be tied up talking to a young lady. I went into the shop.

There I met a taciturn bearded man of about 40. After some perfunctory greetings I told him about my bike and asked him if I could borrow a timing gun. "Timing gun," he said, his only words, and walked over to a tool drawer. He pulled one out, and handed it to me without elaboration. I guess that was how things were out here on the prairie. I thanked him and went out.

Into the hot sun. The air was cool and dry, but there seemed to be no shade anywhere. Nothing for it; I set to work. Screws were stuck, nothing was easy. An orange cat came out of the shop and stretched itself out full-length in the dirt to be petted by me. How could I resist such a gesture? I rubbed him up and down, then went and got my camera. If nothing else at least I'd have a picture to remember this experience by, the end of my great trip West.

I went into the shop and borrowed a couple more tools, bought some lubricants.

A couple of hours passed. The problem wasn't what I thought. I noticed something, tried testing a component I'd thought was innocent. The old "switcharoo" trick -- switch known good and suspected bad, see if the problem moves.

Bingo!

Now how to get the part. Components for a 1978 Japanese motorcycle are hard to come by anywhere, let alone in the middle of rural middle America. I went in and talked to the taciturn man with the beard about it. He didn't have too many ideas that didn't involve being in a larger town 20, 40 miles or more away. Buses? Don't make me laugh. Beg someone for a ride -- there and back? Hitchhiking?

I went and bought a phone card, called Rick. He gave me the number of my mail-order parts place back in New York. 20 minutes on the phone with them determined some specs on the component, and also established that the quickest they could ship one to me was late Monday. Today was Friday. Confound weekends!

The repair shop was closed, out to lunch. Probably the best move for me as well. Think it over.

* * *

The whole downtown took up 2 or 3 square blocks just off from the main highway. Post office, library, grocery store, and, thankfully, Mexican restaurant. Unexpected, but I would take it. There were a few bicycles parked in front of the library. Not one of them locked up. Not bad.

A taco and a soda later I went back to the repair place and talked to Dan himself this time. He looked like anyone's idea of a Minnesota homeboy, with neatly cut brown hair, glasses, and an innocent, boyish look to his features.

"A condenser?" he asked. "A condenser's a condenser!" And he led me back to one of the aisles in his retail shop / parts storeroom. This is more or less what the mail order place had advised as well, but the casual certitude with which Dan had tossed this off (and the directness of his path to the stores) went miles towards raising my spirits.

However none of his condensers had ratings printed on them, and none of them matched the shape of mine exactly. Nonetheless, I found something that I could just barely jam in there -- if I left the cover partly off the ignition plate.

And -- no go.

More frustration, more experimentation. I must be doing something wrong -- what? More hot sun, more hours pass. Fixing things is more than just a mental challenge -- dexterity is required of the fingers as well. This might sound relatively unsophisticated, but the ability to deliberately control fine finger movements separates us as surely from the apes as brain size, language, or any imagined attributes of cleverness. One really has to concentrate on what needs to be done and making the fingers do it.

Finally, I find the right combination in the wiring, switch out some spark plugs as well, and shazam -- it's running on all four! What a wonderful sound, "tut tut tut tit tit tut tut tut tit tit tut tut"... Elation floods my being.

Dan cleans up my fouled plugs, charges me a whopping $2 for the condenser, and I return all the tools to his taciturn partner. What great folks! Dan's Repair: my highest recommendation -- if you ever find yourself on Highway 14 in Lamberton, Minnesota.

I motor the 2 blocks back downtown, have an ice cream, shoot off an email to Rick in the library. In business again. I get on the bike and continue heading west. It's almost 5 o'clock, but I can still make it out of Minnesota and leave this misadventure behind.

* * *

Maybe.

I stop at a couple of auto parts places on the way, trying to find a condenser that will let me close my cover plate. And be a backup if my other one fails. At the first, we go through several boxes, finding nothing better. He suggests I try another repair shop a little further along, where they've sometimes been known to work on a foreign car.

I head over there, talk to one guy, and am directed to an aircraft hangar-like building off to the side. I go in and find three old men seated at a table drinking Millers. By the number of empty cans sitting on the table it looks like their Friday evening started a few hours early.

"What can we do ya for?" a particularly robust, bearded one asks. I tell him and he goes off to his shelves searching, finally digging up one just about the size of mine, with a "Made in Japan" sticker attached to it. Promising. Moreover it actually has its rating printed on it, and it's close to what I need. It has a funny-looking bracket welded to it which might get in the way, but that's the best he's got. "I'll take it." Various descriptions of my trip to the old fellows later, I'm back out on the bike.

And back to two cylinders half a mile further on. The new condenser from Dan's is dead, perhaps wiped out by the heat in the unaccustomed motorcycle environment. I find a way to jam the second one in, bracket and all, and am on the road again. I leave the cover off entirely this time, hoping it will stay cooler.

At last, I cross the South Dakota border. And suddenly the land opens up, another level from what it already was. Farm fields drop away, leaving grassy hills rippling into the distance. Still green. And blue sky. The road a ribbon of near-white, reduced to insignificance amidst so much space.

I remembered South Dakota from the last and only other time I'd passed through this section of the country. I'd come from the West then: soaring mountains, dry plains of vastness, dry fresh air. And still this place had made a great impression on me. Something about that freedom of action thing.

After a few miles I turn off onto a side road following a sign to a state park. And miss it somehow, coming out 10 miles later on another main-ish road leading east-west. Instinctively, I head back east -- maybe I can circle in on it.

But there are no turnoffs, and the road seems to be heading back to the Minnesota border. A mile or so back I'd seen a driveway leading to a lone house. I turn around.

* * *

"I didn't hear you come in," the old man said. His hair was straight, a darker shade of grey, his body straight too. A tan on his cheeks, an air of health about him. His tone was relaxed, and his choice of words made it sound as if he'd been expecting me.

And how I wished he had been. This place was like the farm with the sod house. I'd had to ride in for a few hundred feet from the road, not an ounce of traffic on it save me and all but forgotten now. The front yard looked out eastward over broad swaths of open land; fresh smells of the grass out there filled the cool, dry air. A few trees stood around, their leaves rustling in the evening breeze. Tall trees; this place had been settled and cared for for a long time.

"I'm sorry to bother you.." What a lie! There was not a part of my being not giving thanks right now for the fact that I'd gotten lost, that the winds of circumstance had blown the leaf that was me to just this particular place at this particular time to bother him.

".. but I'm trying to find the state park. I think I passed it, but I'm not sure."

"Ah. Look, you see that grain elevator over there?" He pointed, and I told him I did. It looked about 5 miles away. "That's Hendricks. It's on the east side of the lake. The park is on the south side. Just go into town, through, and out the south side. There'll be a sign telling you where to make a right."

"Thanks." I looked at him. He seemed really relaxed, at peace with things. Hard to imagine anyone out here being otherwise. I judged he was retired. He didn't seem put out by me being here, that was for sure. Briefly, I thought of saying something like, "Hey, it's me, your cousin Joe! Didn't Maggie write you about my visit? What's that? Don't remember Maggie? Hmm, I don't think I brought her phone number out here with me..."

Instead, I just said, "It sure is nice out here." A simple, gratuitous pleasantry. All of the earnestness in the world went into it.

"Yes, it is."

I turned to the bike, strapped my helmet back on. Time to get searching.

* * *

Hendricks was indeed back in Minnesota, a larger version of Lamberton, charming in its spare simplicity. I had dinner and a well-earned beer, and headed out to the campground, on the other side in South Dakota. Enough for one day!

* * *

60 miles, plus 3 running.


Saturday, June 30: Eyrie

This morning I got up and hustled out of the campground early. This park was apparently the local party hangout. One group of kids yelled and shouted in the lake until darkness around 10, then, remarkably, shut up completely. But from another direction a parked car and pickup truck belted out the same Creedence Clearwater Revival album over and over until past when I surrendered my consciousness. A boat came in to the dock sometime around 11 and a good hour or two was spent hauling it out, towing it around the parking area, and gabbing with an RV parked next to my site.

I thought I'd have the morning to myself after all of this late night activity, but boats started being towed in and out, and vehicles prowling, almost as soon as I'd woken up. Time to get on the road.

* * *

It was good to be getting back on track. The bike felt as solid as it could now that my confidence in it had been temporarily crushed, and I made good time in the cool of the morning. The first major town I came to I stopped at an auto parts store to augment my stock of condensers. Amazingly, it was open before 8am on a Saturday.

They didn't have anything good, but the guy behind the counter knew of a place that worked on all kinds of motorcycles and small engines in the next town over. He gave them a call, and it turned out they had a points and condenser kit for the 1970's KZ900 and 1000! This was close enough I figured, and I hustled on over.

The place was C & W, for "Clyde and Wayne". Clyde and Wayne were brothers, both about 6 feet tall and gangly, with short hair and thick glasses, and again boyish, but a little rougher and readier than Dan. Older as well, perhaps in their early 50's. South Dakota homeboys this time. When I got there and told them I was the one from the phone call earlier, Clyde went into the back and came out with a full ignition plate from a KZ650. It'd been left over after a guy'd changed to electronic ignition. Bonanza!

They helped me get it cleaned up, telling me all sorts of useful information about my bike in the process. Apparently my hard-starting problems when the engine was warm of late were caused by the ethanol being added to the gas out here. It had a tendency to boil in hot carburetors and cause vapor lock. I'd have to avoid it when I could. Apparently it was real big in Minnesota (where a lot of corn was grown), but I should be all right in South Dakota. (More wheat and ranching here.)

They advised me to watch out as I headed further west. There weren't too many people out there, and breaking down would not be as convenient as it had been around here. I shrugged at that. If I dwelled on this kind of thing I wouldn't have made the trip at all.

I bid Clyde and Wayne farewell (highest recommendation: C & W Cycle and Small Engine, Volga, South Dakota) and resumed my journey westward.

* * *

By the time I stopped for lunch I had only about 20 miles more to go. I was headed for Lake Louise State Recreation Area. This was a small park stuck in the middle of eastern South Dakota that I'd stayed in six years ago on my way driving from California to Michigan after getting married. Just a single night -- the demands of the road had not let me linger -- but something about the place had stayed with me. I remembered the luxuriant grass, the wind whispering through the trees, the secret deserted nature of the place. Being out in between nowhere and noplace as it was, it was a not place to which I'd expected to return, yet I was scheming to think of ways that I might from almost the moment I'd left.

This part of South Dakota was far from everywhere, and there seemed little chance of it. But now this trip had afforded me an opportunity -- which I jumped at. I'd planned my route to take me through here, and at last I was zeroing in.

* * *

A turn off the main highway, already practically deserted, I enter an alternative domain. At one point I stop, park my bike on the side of the road, and take pictures for ten minutes. Nothing comes by. Only the wheat and grass waving in the wind.

I get on and resume my path. I remember it now, from years ago. I can visualize the entrance to the park.

And then I am there.

* * *

T . i . m . e . . . e . x . t .. e .. n ... d .... s .....

Wind whispering, washing, caressing.

Scents of the fields.

Trees, brush, meadows.

Meadows!

Grasses, flowers.

Dry grass of the prairie. Green though it has not rained for weeks. Everything is green. Lush, but not soporifically; the dryness stimulates.

Walking down a deserted path, I think to get my camera. Then think again. Some places are not meant to be photographed.

Anyway a tape recorder would be a far better tool to capture this place. So many birds, so eloquent. Insects. Life, humming.

Paths through the fields: maintenance method of choice? The lawn mower.

The lake, its shoreline meandering. The lake becomes a river. A river like these paths, varying, dallying, dillying, wandering like thoughts through the coming evening.

I look up, and two deer bound off through the grass. How long had they been standing just eight feet away?

Marsh. Stench of decay. Two food cycles in ecology: synthesis pathway and detritus pathway. Building things up and breaking them down. Plants, herbivores, carnivores on the one side, fungi and microorganisms on the other. Without either one the cycle would end.

Eyrie. Many ways to approach or leave, but far, inaccessible. All parts of the world, all lives, all paths -- equidistant.

I camp adjacent to the same site I used before. And so I meet myself from six years ago. He is a hopeful young man, this fellow with the red sports car and two good-hearted cats. He is newly married and on his way east to start a new life and a family. I, the divorced man six years older, try to tell him what to expect, not to be too optimistic, to try to enjoy things as they come. Never expect anything to last forever.

Perhaps he hears me. For his part he tells me of what things looked like then. When I see where they ended up, maybe I learn something. I know now this will not be the last time I will be here. I lay back, try to listen for what my future self is telling me.

Prairie earth: hard, packed, solid.

A series of mowed fields amidst the tall grasses. Inscrutable labels carved on posts: T7, I start in then I follow, T6, T5, T4, T3 - T2 - T1. Nothing happens. Maybe a T0 somewhere I have not found.

No streams in or out. Where does the water come from?

Cobalt dragonflies flit and dart, skimming the lake surface.

* * *


Sunday, July 1: The Open Lands

160 miles yesterday, and now back on the road heading west. I make Pierre ("Peer" as pronounced by Clyde and Wayne) maybe around 10 and have breakfast. It's already getting pretty warm, and the wind that had been picking up yesterday as I came in to Lake Louise has grown positively fierce. It comes from the south. When heading west I'd had to tilt the bike left just to keep going straight. When heading south, it would be head-on, creating a rushing force.

Soon I experienced just this -- as I left Pierre I crossed the Missouri River, and with that I finally made my long-anticipated Left Turn. I had mostly done with moving west, and now had to descend from the north down to Colorado. I could expect the air to get warmer now -- my strategy of heat avoidance having reached its limit. Curiously I felt like my journey was nearly at an end -- though I had 3 days after this one -- such was the symbolic impact of this maneuver. Too, with the Missouri crossing I'd reached the Mountain time zone, in which my destination lay.

* * *

Now the land dried out further and opened up even more than it already was. Rarely did I see a farm field. Ranching held sway now. But sparse ranching. Although every inch of land along the side of the road was fenced off (always the same, barbed wire strung straggly across wood posts), only occasionally would I see a small group of cows, now in the distance, now hugging the road, stolidly enduring the heat. Most of them were black, and their only solace must have been the wind, which seemed quite capable of whisking away all that solar energy. But oh, how biting the cold must be in the winter!

My only defense against the wind was to hunch behind my windshield, wishing it were taller and wider. I hunched for miles at a time, cramping up my body but having a much easier time keeping the bike going straight than I would otherwise.

There weren't many towns here, nor much of anything really. Gas stations seemed to be growing sparse, and I resolved to fill up anytime I saw one if I'd gone more than 50 miles on the tank. My range would normally be about 160 miles, but with the wind taking its toll I knew it was reduced. Prudence paid off, as I went one stretch of a hundred miles without a single station.

This was along South Dakota 83 south and US 18 west, two of the most desolate highways I've ever had the privilege to move along. People did live here, here and there, and I wondered at how far they must have to drive to get gas, let alone groceries or other goods. I had thought my transition from New York City to rural upstate a rather major one, but life out here was surely a different matter entirely. We think of the frontier as being totally gone, but in some ways it was still here.

I saw the odd motorcyclist here and there on the road, and our waves to each other were particularly deeply-felt, as we shared the common battle against the wind. Many carried luggage, but I'd yet to see any bikers in the places were I'd camped. I wondered where they'd stayed. I spoke to a couple in gas stations, but we talked mostly about the wind, destinations, and the road, not about these kinds of things.

Some time in the afternoon I came to an intersection with a dirt road heading west. My own path lay south, but I lingered for some time here, for just 20 or 30 miles west lay the "Wounded Knee" creek, scene of an 1890 massacre in which 300 out of 350 unarmed Sioux Indians were gunned down and killed by the US army, spooked by a single brave brandishing the last gun confiscated from them before he put it down. 25 US soldiers died that day as well, nearly all killed by their own bullets or shrapnel. Twenty medals of "honor" were subsequently awarded for this testament to idiocy. Generally considered to mark the end of our wars with the native Americans, it was a sordid affair, well representative of our nation's sordid history with these people.

And it was stunning to believe that even this remote land, vast and desolate as it was, was considered too small to hold the Indians and the Anglo settlers. Even now there seems little reason for conflict. Is there mining? The empty hills around are ample evidence that this could have been done in coexistence with native occupants. Must we ranch, grow corn? Millions of acres in other areas already serve this purpose. We have so much corn we throw it into fermenting vats to make into fuel, gaining a mere 10% over the oil we must put into the process. Did we need room for settlement? With just 3 million people in all of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, we're hardly using these areas even now.

* * *

At last I crossed down into Nebraska, and signs of civilization started picking up a bit. Not a moment too soon. The desolation, the eerie aloneness, had been getting to me.

I stopped at the Museum of the Fur Trade, hoping to see first-hand some artifacts of that first wave of pioneers that had been the first large scale assault on the great North American continent. Without these dedicated wealth seekers and wily Indian dealers, who knows whether Manifest Destiny -- and the sad events just spoken of -- would have ever come to pass?

I was too late for the museum however, which operated on country hours: 8 to 5. It was about to close, but the two women who worked there had lots to say about various things.

They'd both moved out from Eastern Nebraska, which they said was a humid place. Noting the dryness around here, I had trouble understanding where the water to fill that air came from. Six to eight inches of rain per year they told me. Last year only five.

I marvelled at the powers of prairie vegetation. Southern California got more rain than this, and was almost a desert. Here we had green, not brown grass, and trees, flowers. Never exposed ground.

Still, prairie grass was one thing. All of the corn fields I'd been seeing were another. Great metal contraptions watered these. Where did all the water come from?

The Ogallala Aquifer. A giant natural underground reservoir, it spread beneath eight states, but the bulk of it was under Nebraska. Water was pumped up locally within farms, and sprayed out of the contraptions I had seen. Some of these rolled linearly across fields, while others rotated from a central axis. Green circles were seen from the air. Water was being pumped out far faster than it flowed in, and the stored volume was dropping. Yet another tale of too little water being used too heavily in the West.

* * *

Fort Robinson, site of a famous treaty between white man and Indian (broken of course, by the former), was nearby, and that had been my first thought for a camping destination, but one of the two, the museum director and a historian, was actually more enthusiastic about a state park ten miles south in the Nebraska National Forest. The forest was a narrow outpost of pines jutting above what was really one of the world's vastest expanses of sand dunes, if we could only see them beneath the prairie grass.

I told the woman that, for those of us in the East, only the big places -- the Rockies, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, etc. reached our consciousness. We would never hear of a place like this, or think to plan a trip around it. And so we had to make the best of things we could, making these discoveries when passing through en route to other destinations. For the vast majority who simply fly: nothing.

* * *

330 miles, plus 8 running.


<- PrevNext ->